What Is “Zen Practice” Anyway?

What Is “Zen Practice” Anyway?

What Is “Zen Practice,” anyway? If you have spent any time in a Zen community, or reading Zen books, you will have encountered the term “practice” countless times. Asian Buddhist teachers throughout the centuries have exhorted us to “practice” diligently. Students of Zen are called “practitioners” and we talk to one another about our “practice:” “I’ve been practicing 20 years,” or “I just started practice,” or “Lately my practice has been focused on an acceptance of change.” We say it is hard to practice without a Sangha, or community. When facing challenges in life, we say, “It’s good practice.”

Definitions of “Practice”
Traditional Versus Experiential Practice
A Working Definition of Experiential Practice
Inquiry and Behavior Lead to Understanding and Manifestation
Resolving Our Deepest Questions, Longings, and Fears
Living the Best Human Life (In a Spiritual Sense)
Example: What Experiential Practice Is Like
Example, continued: Inquiry into What’s Going On
Example, continued: What Leads to Living the Best Possible Life?
Practice as Turning to Face Your Life

Definitions of “Practice”

I don’t have the knowledge of Chinese, Korean, or Japanese that would let me explore the subtleties of the words Asian Zen teachers have used for “practice,” but it seems very appropriate to me that the English word “practice” has several different connotations, all of which are relevant to Zen.

The online Oxford dictionary (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/practice) lists three different definitions for “practice,” and as I share them with you, I’ll briefly mention how each meaning applies to Zen:

  1. The actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.

The list of synonyms for this meaning includes exercise, operation, implementation, execution, enactment, action, doing, employ, put into effect, draw on, and bring into play. This list of synonyms sounds like the instructions of a Zen or Buddhist teacher to their students! There are many Buddhist teachings and methods, but from the beginning of Buddhism it has been understood that if you don’t actually employ the methods yourself, and if you don’t actually investigate and verify the teachings for yourself, they are more or less useless to you. In other words, just believing in them or thinking about them doesn’t usually help you or anyone else. Their efficacy lies in their application and enactment.

Okay, on to our second definition of the English word “practice:”

  1. The customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something.

Some of the synonyms for this definition include policy, convention, tradition, habit, method, system, routine, institution, way, and rule. In terms of Zen, this aspect of practice is reflected in the phrase “I make a practice of putting my shoes straight when I take them off.” We choose a way of behaving that was described and taught by Buddhist masters over the course of two millennia, entrusting ourselves to the method in order to be transformed by it and let it guide the course of our lives. This is especially relevant in the moral dimension, where Buddhism has always provided instructions for practitioners about how to best conduct themselves in their daily lives.

Here’s the third definition of practice:

  1. Repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.

The synonyms for this definition include training, rehearsal, repetition, preparation, exercise, and study. This is probably the definition of “practice” most people will associate with Zen. After all, Zen is a course of study and training with a particular goal: liberation from suffering and the achievement of abiding inner peace. In this sense of practice, we apply Zen teachings and methods in our lives because we want to learn, cultivate wisdom and compassion, and deepen our spiritual insight and freedom.

The English word practice, then, is appropriate for Zen in the sense that 1) we seek to actually engage and put into effect its teachings and methods, and not just believe in or think about them; 2) in that we adopt a traditional, tried-and-true way of conducting our lives; and 3) and in that we acknowledge the possibility of, and strive for, spiritual improvement and development. To put it even more succinctly, we put Zen teachings and methods into practice, we make a practice of conducting ourselves in a way consistent with Zen, and we practice the teachings and methods in order to develop our understanding and compassion over time.

Traditional Versus Experiential Practice

To fully appreciate what Zen practice is, it also helps to examine it from two different perspectives: Traditional versus Experiential.

First, there’s the perspective of tradition, which is essentially Zen from the point of view of space and time. Zen evolved from Buddhism, which was started by a guy who lived over 2500 years ago. Over the millennia, teachers and practitioners created new teachings and methods, and the religious tradition of Zen Buddhism continues to evolve today. A student of Zen studies these teachings and methods, and then puts them into practice, makes a practice of them, and practices to get better at them.

This traditional aspect of Zen is essential, because no individual is likely to be able to create for themselves a spiritual system so rich and challenging, or be able to entirely guide themselves through the enactment of it. So “Zen practice” definitely includes things like studying Zen and Buddhist texts and spiritual concepts, learning from and working with Zen teachers, engaging in meditation and mindfulness, following moral guidelines, and trying to embody ideals like generosity and patience. For some of us it also involves participating in a Zen community, making formal vows, and engaging in traditional rituals and ceremonies.

At another level, however, the teachings and methods of Zen point at something much more fundamental: a way for human beings to approach their experience of life that leads to liberation, wisdom, and compassion. I’m calling this the “experiential” aspect of practice, and it can only happen in this very moment, in this very place. We may be guided to this experiential practice through Zen teachings and teachers, but ultimately this practice is completely independent of any particular spiritual tradition. In this sense, Zen practice is about what you do in response to each and every moment of your life.

A Definition of Experiential Zen Practice

For the rest of this episode I’m going to concentrate on this second aspect of Zen practice, the experiential, because it’s subtler than the traditional aspect. (You can learn more about the traditional elements of Zen practice in a number of places, including this podcast! In addition, you may want to check out my book, Zen Living, part of the Idiot’s Guides series, if you’d like an approachable but comprehensive overview of everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-Zen-but-were-afraid-to-ask.)

So… in this very moment, in this very place, what does it mean to practice Zen? It’s not so easy to describe. After all, we’re talking about a full experience of mind and body, which doesn’t lend itself to a simple summary in words. You’re not going to find a neat, one-sentence explanation of this aspect of Zen practice with which all Zen students and teachers are going to agree. However, we have to start somewhere, so I’ll humbly offer this definition: Experiential Zen practice involves inquiry and behaviors undertaken to address and resolve your deepest spiritual questions, longings, and fears, in order to live the best possible human life in a spiritual sense. I’ll explain this definition, phrase by phrase.

Inquiry and Behavior Lead to Understanding and Manifestation

Inquiry and behaviors: In general, there are two paths of practice, understanding and manifestation. Inquiry leads to understanding, and the adoption and cultivation of certain kinds of behaviors leads to manifestation. Many people have more affinity for one path than the other. Some of us want to understand – not just in an intellectual way, but also with a deep knowing that comes from personal experience – before we fully commit ourselves to action. Others of us are primarily drawn to manifestation or action and want to start living out our values and aspirations as soon as possible; understanding can come later as a side effect or bonus.

Of course, most people are interested in both understanding and manifestation, and ultimately our practice must include both. The Buddhist ancestors have taught many times that no matter what behavioral practices you adopt, if you don’t understand the great matter of life and death you won’t really have achieved liberation. On the other hand, what good is understanding if you don’t manifest what you’ve learned?

Resolving Our Deepest Questions, Longings, and Fears

Undertaken to address and resolve one’s deepest spiritual questions, longings, and fears: This is an extremely important aspect of Zen practice. Our secular societies and other religious traditions typically offer us two responses when we present our deepest spiritual questions, longings, and fears:

  1. Don’t ask troubling questions, there aren’t any answers, so just try to fulfill your longings and cope with your fears; or
  2. Here are the answers to your questions, and if you have enough faith in those answers you should be less troubled by your longings and fears.

Zen is a radical tradition in that is proposes there are indeed answers to your deepest spiritual questions, and that you can personally and directly experience a deep understanding of them. By “spiritual” questions I mean ones like, “What is the meaning of life?” or “How can there be so much good and evil in the world at the same time?” or “What is behind my depression?” No amount of Zen practice is likely to give you insight into questions like “Is life on other planets?” but in terms of questions about your own life and about human life in general, there is no limit to the depth of the questions that can be asked and answered except your own courage and perseverance.

Zen also proposes it is possible to address and resolve your deepest longings and fears, including longings like those for meaning, security, and connection, and fears like those of death, loss, or annihilation. Again, there is no limit to the depth of that which can be faced and transformed except your own courage and perseverance.

The answers and resolutions can’t be taught to you by others or read in books; they must be personally explored and experienced. While Buddhist teachers over the course of the last 2500 years have taught about the answers and resolutions they experienced, you don’t need to accept anything they offer without personal verification. In fact, if you do, it won’t be nearly as much good to you as your own personal experience. Transformative answers and resolutions happen through your own, lived process of inquiry. 

In short, Zen dares you to address and explore spiritual matters that may make you quiver in your boots, and it is a method of inquiry and practice, not a system of answers.

Living the Best Human Life (In a Spiritual Sense)

In order to live the best possible human life in a spiritual sense: I added “in a spiritual sense” just to be clear that we’re not talking about evaluating the quality of a life based on materialistic things like wealth, beauty, or power. Still, even with that clarification, different people are going to have very different ideas about what the “best possible life” would be like. According to one Buddhist teaching (Rockwell, 2002) there are five kinds of “energies” within us as human beings, and for most of us, one or two energies predominate. Each energy is associated with a different kind of spiritual preoccupation:

  1. Red energy makes us long for intimacy (with other beings but also with everything we encounter)
  2. Yellow energy makes us long for stability or security (the sense of being real, strong and substantial)
  3. Blue energy makes us long for order (a sense that the universe has a structure that is, or should be, reflected in everything)
  4. Green energy makes us long for efficacy (the ability to move, act and interact with the universe in an impactful and efficient or graceful way)
  5. White energy makes us long for transcendence (a sense of the “more” beyond the details of our everyday lives)

With each of these spiritual longings comes an accompanying set of typical fears and tendencies.

Whether this particular breakdown of human spiritual preoccupations makes sense to you or not, it suggests the variety of ways people will conceive of “living the best possible human life in a spiritual sense.” One person may think of living a moral life with a maximum of benefit, and a minimum of harm, to others. Another may think of rich, meaningful, intimate, brave relationships with family and friends, or acting with generosity toward all beings. Another may think of developing a deep understanding of the universe and human life, and creating things that reflect their understanding of the beauty and order they have discovered. What is common to all of these is a liberation of human potential from the bondage of misunderstanding, longing, and fear.

So why do I specify why we do experiential Zen practice within the definition? Of course we may do certain Zen practices for reasons that are less grand than “living the best possible life;” we may practice in order to reduce our stress or anxiety, or to have greater access to patience or creativity in the course of our everyday life. Ultimately, however, Zen invites us to “up the ante” and consider what we really want in our heart of hearts. Our fundamental longings for intimacy, security, order, efficacy, and transcendence are actually behind all of our other desires, fears, and problems. And, while Zen doesn’t promise complete enlightenment in this lifetime, it definitely teaches that progress and change are possible for each and every one of us.

Example: What Experiential Practice Is Like

Alright, my definition is a little complicated and lofty, so I’ll try to bring it down to earth by giving you an example of what Experiential Zen Practice might look like in the midst of everyday life.

Let’s say I am having repeated conflicts with my teenage daughter. (I don’t have kids, but you’ll get my point anyway.) She frequently blows off her responsibilities around school and home. Her grades are suffering and everyone else around the house is affected when she fails to help out. I find myself getting irritable in general, and angry with my daughter. I obsess about this issue in my mind throughout the day, and she and I often get into verbal arguments when we’re together. I worry she’s withdrawing from me emotionally, but I don’t know what else to do besides lecture and berate her.

Then I decide to turn the situation into an opportunity for experiential Zen practice. Or, as Zen students say, I decide to “practice with it.” As I sit drinking a cup of tea, my mind returns again to the impossible, worrying problem of my daughter’s pathological lack of ability to take responsibility. Noticing this, I recall the methods of inquiry and forms of behavior I have learned in Zen.

I first employ mindfulness to become more present in my body – becoming aware of my breathing, my posture, and any areas of tension. Rooted in my direct experience of the moment, I recognize the thoughts about my daughter as part of my experience. I remember they are not necessarily inherently true – they are just thoughts I am having about the situation. Implicit in that recognition is the possibility I may not be perceiving everything about the situation fully or correctly. I may not understand my daughter’s experience, and I may not be aware of everything that’s going on. This gives me a little more “space” around my thoughts, allowing me to observe them more clearly and feel less upset by them.

Example, continued: Inquiry into What’s Going On

Then I delve deeper, asking myself, “Why is this upsetting me so much?” Obviously, I care about my daughter’s well-being, but if I try to be objective I have to admit that forgetting a few homework assignments and neglecting to take out the trash is not necessarily proof that my daughter will grow up to be a failure. Looking within my own experience, I ask myself honestly, “What more is going on here for you?” Suddenly, I recognize a thought in my head, “Everyone’s going to know I’ve raised an irresponsible kid.” Notice: as I recognize this thought, I am not sitting there, drinking my tea, thinking about my problem. I am mindfully observing the thoughts and feelings that are naturally arising in me. If I had been willfully analyzing my daughter’s situation, I probably wouldn’t have arrived at the “I’ve raised an irresponsible kid and people will know” thought.

Recognizing the thought, I go, “Wow, look at that!” I continue my Zen practice in the moment by refraining from getting caught up in subsequent judgments about what’s going on in my head. Instead, I allow myself to acknowledge there is part of me that worries about what people are going to think of me, based on my daughter’s behavior now and in the future. At the same time, that worry fades in comparison with my sincere love and respect for my daughter, and another part of me knows very well that her life is her own. Suddenly her lack of responsibility or follow-through is seen against a backdrop of her strengths, and I feel some optimism and patience.

Example, continued: What Leads to Living the Best Possible Life?

I have a little time to continue drinking my tea and my mind feels pretty clear, so instead of stopping at the resolution of my immediate issue, I continue my experiential Zen practice by inquiring about what’s going on in my life at an even deeper level. As I notice my stress at my daughter’s irresponsibility, I see how much I long for everything to be in order – controlled and properly taken care of. In fact, part of me believes that my life will fall apart and ultimately prove to be meaningless unless a certain level of order is maintained. My sense of worth is intimately tied to my ability to take care of my responsibilities! I realize how this situation sets me up for failure should my ability to fend off chaos ever be compromised. Then I dare to ask myself the question, “Is there a more reliable way to have a sense of self-worth and meaning in my life?”

Then I remember I have asked myself this question before, and actually had a deep insight into it in the course of a meditation retreat when I was able to let go of all concepts and settle into my direct experience. I employ the same method now, and become aware of the sound of the birds outside the window, and watch the steam from my tea dance in the air. For a moment, I connect with the deeper reality of life, which is luminous and flowing, and inherently precious – even though, at any given moment, there are an infinite number of things that are not yet “in order.” I feel restored, and much better able to meet my daughter – and the rest of my life – with patience, openness, and compassion.

Zen Practice as Turning to Face Your Life

This is, of course, just one limited and imaginary example, but hopefully it conveys some of what I mean by “experiential Zen practice.” The essence of this in-the-moment practice is turning to face the things that are going on in your life in a conscious and deliberate way. It means to use even the mundane circumstances of your life as opportunities to gain insight into where misunderstanding, longing, and fear are getting in the way of you living the best life you possibly can. Inherent in this approach is the optimistic Zen premise that you can gain greater insight, and you can make meaningful changes in your life. With that said, I definitely didn’t mean to imply that if you practice like I described in my “everyday life” example that you’ll solve your major life issues in one sitting. This requires ongoing work; in my example, I would probably need to practice with my concern about my daughter on a daily basis, and it might take me many years to really let go of my attachment to control and order.

One of the categories of episodes on the Zen Studies Podcast is “Zen practices,” which I describe as “Things Zen Students Do.” Now you see why this category will include Zen practices in the traditional sense – like meditation and precept study – but it will also include things Zen students do in a more experiential sense – the practice of inquiry and behavior right here, right now, in response to our lives, or what it’s like to actually put into practice the traditional teachings and methods.

 


Rockwell, Irini. The Five Wisdom Energies: A Buddhist Way of Understanding Personalities, Emotions, and Relationships. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2002.